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It sounds odd to name Florida State as a surprise contender for the national championship, a role the Seminoles took for granted when they finished in the top five for 14 consecutive years (1987-2000). But in a season without any obvious favorite -- and Ohio State, though it is a consensus No. 1, has its flaws -- Florida State has a good chance.
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Things could be looking up for Bobby Bowden and the 'Noles.
The defense remains talented, even though it lost three starters in the first round of April's NFL draft (four if you count corner Antonio Cromartie, who missed the 2005 season because of injury). The offense simply needs to stay healthy, especially up front. Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden said this week there's no reason his team can't be one of the lucky ones.
"I think personnelwise we are about as good as anybody else," Bowden said. "I have always looked at it like this: That out of 120 teams, you have between 20 and 50 and one of them will win a national championship What I am saying is a couple of those teams are going to get lucky. A couple of them will stay healthy. A couple of them will get a couple of bounces and they will get there. That is what it is going to take."
As for teams that leap into respectability, I'll take Mississippi State in Year 3 of Sly Croom's tenure as head coach, and I'll take Washington in Year 2 of Ty Willingham's return to the Pac-10.
For a number of years, it's been special-teams play. Blame the 20-hours-per-week practice rule, or hidebound coaches who refuse to devote enough preseason time to special teams, but there are always a lot of kicking-game mistakes the first week that change the course of a game. Bad snaps, bad kick coverage, bad blocks -- it's just flat-out bad.
But this week there might be a new problem. This week, for the first time, coaches must deal with the rule changes involving the clock. The clock will start when the ball is kicked, not when it is touched by the receiving team. On a change in possession, the clock will start when the referee signals ready, not when the ball is snapped.
It's the latter rule that promises to wreak havoc this week. The NCAA football rules committee changed it to shave some time off the length of a game. The unfortunate thing is that, until the coaches get the hang of it, the new rule will shave a number of plays off the game, which is the last thing any of us want.
It seems like a safe bet that some coordinator out there will not get his team out on the field quickly enough, resulting in a delay-of-game penalty, a burned timeout or a vanilla play call because the wrong players go out on the field. It's the first game for coaches, too.
That's an easy one. The Pac-10 and the Big East are the only two leagues of the six don't-call-them-BCS-anymore conferences in which every team plays every other team. That the Pac-10 chose to do so with 10 teams is a boon for the fans. The league did it when the NCAA approved the 12th game after last season. While most I-A schools ran out and scheduled a home game against Buy A Victory State to make the cash, the Pac-10 presidents went along with the schedule expansion only if their schools used the 12th game to play a complete round robin.
In some ways, it's not fair. Five schools will have four home games and five away games in conference play. That puts an onus on them to schedule nonconference home games. Stanford is playing only five home games, although that is in part due to shifting its home game against San Jose State to Spartan Stadium, just in case the reconstruction of Stanford Stadium will not be complete by Sept. 9.
More typical is Arizona State, which solved its issue by buying a home game against I-AA Northern Arizona. But that's a small price to play for a complete round-robin conference schedule. The Pac-10 takes a lot of heat because its champion escapes the chore of playing in a conference championship game. But if you want to name a true conference champion, you have every team play every other one.
The Pac-10 is the model.
Sometimes I learn as much in a chat from you as I hope that you do from me. What I learned in my Tuesday chat is that there's a lot of skepticism, bordering on condescension, about West Virginia. The Mountaineers went 11-1 last season. They beat SEC champion Georgia 38-35 in the Sugar Bowl. They have 15 returning starters, including a quarterback, sophomore Pat White, and a tailback, Steve Slaton, who are as good a one-two punch as there is in the nation.
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QB Pat White is just one reason West Virginia deserves its current lofty status.
And people all but hold their nose when they talk about them.
Look, the Mountaineers have an inexperienced defense. I can list plenty of reasons they won't repeat their success of a season ago (even though they do have a soft schedule). But I can give you plenty of reasons why a lot of teams won't be successful this year. It's that kind of season.
The disdain fans have for the Big East is palpable, and ridiculous where West Virginia is concerned. The last time the Mountaineers played, they beat the SEC champion. Some argued that Georgia didn't have a good night or that West Virginia would never survive a season full of an SEC or Big Ten schedule.
My guess is these are the same people who, on other days, complain that we need a playoff so the championship will be decided on the field.
West Virginia did achieve on the field. The Mountaineers should be accorded the respect that comes from the record they had last season. The offense should be lauded and/or feared, depending upon one's allegiance, for what it may achieve this season. If West Virginia falters, I will be the first to admit the Mountaineers are overrated.
But until then, West Virginia deserves to be taken seriously.
If Michigan State follows through and defeats Idaho Saturday as expected, Idaho coach Dennis Erickson knows whom to blame. That would be, uh, Dennis Erickson.
After last season, the family of Drew Stanton, the Spartans' junior quarterback, approached Erickson looking for advice about whether Stanton should leave early for the NFL. Erickson advised against it. Stanton stayed at Michigan State. One month after the NFL deadline for declaring for the draft, Erickson returned to Idaho, his first college head coaching position, to take over the Vandals.
"Maybe I should have said yes," Erickson mused Monday. "I created my own problem. I have a tendency to do that."
AP Photo/Roger Ames
Dennis Erickson is glad to be back on campus.
Erickson laughed as he said that, an indication that, despite the fact that he's viewing the world from the bottom of the Western Athletic Conference, he couldn't be happier with his return to college football after four years. Erickson, 59, left Oregon State in 2002 and returned to the NFL as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He won nine games in two seasons and when he left after the 2004 season, he was viewed more as a victim of an inept front office then as a failure.
Erickson returned to college football, where he won 145 games, five conference championships and two national championships (Miami, 1989 and 1991) in 17 seasons. Erickson returned to Idaho, 24 seasons after he first became a collegiate head coach there.
One measure of the progress that Idaho has made is that in Erickson's first tenure, he took the Vandals to the I-AA playoffs twice in four seasons. Now the I-A Vandals are in the WAC.
"The campus has really changed," Erickson said. "It is really growing. Enrollment is over 15,000. It was 9,000 or 10,000 when I was here before."
Another measure of the progress is not as good. Erickson has the same office that he had when he left in 1985.
"The football facilities have not changed much," he said. "We have two new practice fields, all SprintTurf. We're making progress. We've got a long way to go. There have got to be some commitments made here to make it better."
Some coaches prefer the NFL, where the distractions are few and the amount of time that a coach may spend with his players is plentiful. Others prefer developing college players, even in the face of the 20-hours-per-week practice limit that college coaches must deal with.
"The biggest difference is you don't spend as much time with the players, and they have other things on their plate," Erickson said. "You have to make sure you have enough time to spend with them. We do waste a lot of time, believe me. It's a little bit more fun this way. The NFL is such a long season. It's all football."
Two of Erickson's first four games will be at schools where he used to be the head coach: Washington State (1987-88) and Oregon State (1999-2002). He has been back to Pullman as a visiting head coach. But he hasn't been back to Corvallis, the prospect of which he referred to as both "interesting" and "strange."
Erickson will take a young team to East Lansing this week. He is starting a freshman at strong safety. He is hoping a couple of raw talents at wide receiver, former defensive back DeAngelo Ramsay and redshirt freshman Max Komar, can be productive targets for senior quarterback Steve Wichman. Playing freshmen means that Erickson is looking at the long-term with his players.
Even if it's only 20 hours at a time.
Just when you've had all the suspensions and bar fights and NCAA violations you can take, along comes a Michael Frogg to remind you of the good stories in college football.
Elizabeth Olivier/UT Athletics
Michael Frogg jumped from walk-on to starting center for the Volunteers.
Frogg, a 6-foot-4, 295-pound redshirt junior center at Tennessee, arrived on campus from Kingston (Tenn.) High three years ago. He came because coach Phillip Fulmer invited him to walk on as a long snapper. Frogg didn't have to swallow his pride. He didn't have any other scholarship offers.
But he did have a brother-in-law, Kevin Mays, who played guard for Johnny Majors and Fulmer from 1991 through '94 and served as captain his senior year.
"I talked to him before I came here," Frogg said. "He told me, 'It's going to be tough.' I had the mind-set that it would be tough. He said, 'Play hard. Play hard the whole time.'"
Frogg knew how to do that. You learn how to overcome challenges pretty young when your last name is Frogg.
"At one time, there was an 'E' on the end. F-R-O-G-G-E," he said. "But too many people said 'Froggie.' Someone dropped the 'E', I think my grandfather's family. Having that name made me tough. That makes you pretty tough. It's the old song about A Boy Named Sue deal."
Put it this way: Anyone who called him "Kermit" didn't do it twice.
"I had a point to prove," Frogg said.
And that's pretty much how he attacked his scout team work. He didn't make the team as a long snapper, but he persevered. He appeared in two games as a redshirt freshman, and two more games last season. And then, somehow, the light came on. He won the starting center job this month in a battle with freshman Josh McNeil.
"I'm not the greatest athlete to walk through Tennessee's doors," he said. "Effort has taken me farther than my athletic talent."
Last week, Fulmer named Frogg the starter in the Volunteers' opener Saturday night against California. As heartwarming as that is, it may not have been the best thing that Fulmer did for Frogg in August. Earlier in the month, the coach gave Frogg a scholarship.
Asked which meant more to him, Frogg thought for a few seconds. "That's a tough question," Frogg said. "I know when I got on scholarship, I called home and said, 'Mom, you can relax. You ain't got to pay the bills no more.'"
Frogg's dad is a retired postal worker, and his mom a "stay-at-home" mom (his description), so Michael is aware of how far the $13,000 they won't spend this year will go.
"They're probably enjoying themselves right now," he said.
In more ways than he could possibly know. Ask any parent.
Coaches, as we know, are control freaks. They want no surprises. Routine is cherished. They think of everything. Except, of course, when they don't.
June Jones will keep the Warriors on Hawaii time during preparation for Alabama.
Hawaii plays at Alabama on Saturday night, and the trip, as Warriors coach June Jones explained to me the other day, is timed ideally for Hawaii to play at its best at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday night. For instance, Hawaii left campus at 2:30, local time, Tuesday, and took a red-eye flight to Atlanta that is scheduled to arrive early Wednesday morning. At which point, Jones said, the team will remain on Hawaii time.
"We will sleep all day, and practice that night in Atlanta at Georgia Tech," Jones said. "We'll sleep until 1 or 2 p.m. Thursday, practice again Thursday night. We'll have team meetings until 1 or 2 in the morning."
Only on Friday, after the team travels 150 miles west to Birmingham, will the transition to central daylight time begin. The reason he waits, Jones said, is because that's what Dick Tomey did when he coached at Hawaii from 1977-86.
"He's the only one who ever won on the road here," said Jones of Tomey. Jones has gone 12-18 (.400) on the mainland in his seven seasons at the school. "It's very difficult for Hawaii to travel east. He said to stay on Hawaii time. In reality [the 6:07 p.m., CT kickoff] will be a 2:00 game."
It is a sound plan. But once the Warriors land in Atlanta, they will be joined by the remnants of Tropical Storm Ernesto, with a 60 percent chance of thunderstorms Wednesday and a 40 percent chance Thursday.
Practice is anything but guaranteed, in which case Hawaii will be walking through plays in gyms or ballrooms. Coaches can control a lot of things. Weather, as of yet, is not one of them.
Editor's note: Every week, Ivan Maisel will explain how to perform a task integral to college football. It may happen on the field. It may happen on the sideline. It may have to do with tradition, or preparation, or the band, or the managers. But you'll go inside the sport as you never have before. Here goes:
It's really quite simple, according to Cal coach Jeff Tedford, the guy who has made stud quarterbacks out of Trent Dilfer, David Carr, Joey Harrington and Aaron Rodgers. Sometimes you look off a linebacker by looking right at him.
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Jeff Tedford's QB instruction starts with the feet.
"I bet most people would define looking off a linebacker as looking in the opposite direction of a linebacker," Tedford said. "That's not always true. Staring the linebacker down can put as much pressure on him as looking the other way. The key to looking off any defender is to understand where your guys are and the concept of the play you're trying to get done."
The quarterback has to know where his receivers will be without looking for them. When he knows where he wants to deliver the pass, he can begin to decide how he wants to hide his intentions. Looking off a defender, Tedford said, doesn't have to begin with the eyes. In fact, to properly conceal the play, a quarterback first has to start at the other end of his body.
"There are a lot of people who don't understand that it all starts with the feet," says Tedford, who leaps up from the chair in his office to demonstrate. He takes a three-step drop away from his desk.
"Some people teach, 'Get back as fast as you can,'" Tedford said. "Others, and we are one, are big on this: the hip placement, the foot placement, the shoulders -- " Tedford moved each part as he named it " -- so that we can see the whole field.
"Take your shoulder profile. Say I'm a right-handed quarterback and I want to see a hot defender off to my left. If I turn my feet in this direction [to his right] and close my hip, I'm going to have a really hard time seeing that hot defender."
Tedford cranes to his left, almost turning from his waist in exaggeration to prove his point.
"If you can leave your left foot and your hip slightly open, and keep your shoulder profile straight, you can see the whole field," Tedford said. "I hear young coaches say all the time, 'You got to see over there! Get your head around!' Again, it starts with your feet."
Once the feet are in the proper position, the shoulders can be employed as decoys, or as the real thing. A quick shoulder feint away from the intended receiver can be all that's necessary to "look off" a defender. But the rest of the body has to be in proper alignment to make the shoulder feint believable.
"The higher up you go in football, people study that stuff," Tedford said. "Corners are so good. They see that when you're throwing to the right, your shoulder turns that way. The little fundamentals are consistent with looking things off as well. It all starts with a consistent shoulder profile on the drop. Whether you're throwing right or left, you can give them your shoulder and make them think you're going in another direction, and then come back. It's as much shoulders as it is eyes."
To summarize, you look off a linebacker with your feet. Or your shoulders. Or, maybe, your eyes.
There may be a little more to playing quarterback than we thought.
1.Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma, RB: He has the talent, and given the rest of the offense, he'll get the opportunities to make big yards.
2. Brady Quinn, Notre Dame, QB: Everything is lined up for him to have a Heisman-worthy season. Can you believe that Notre Dame has had only one Heisman winner (Tim Brown) in the last 41 seasons?
3. Marshawn Lynch, California, RB: Lynch has good size, good speed, good hands and is the centerpiece of a very good offense. If he stays healthy and the Bears start winning, he'll be in this mix all season.
4. Ted Ginn Jr., Ohio State, WR/KR: He is this year's Tim Brown, a talented wide receiver who can change a game with his return skills. He gets the national stage on Sept. 9 at Texas.
5. Michael Bush, Louisville, RB: A bruising back with good speed, Bush will have a marquee game early (Sept. 16 against Miami) to take his Heisman campaign national.
1. Ohio State: There has been a backlash against the Buckeyes' large number of No. 1 votes, the crux being that the offense isn't as good as advertised. Northern Illinois and Texas will test it.
2. Texas: I'm not sure what we'll find out about Colt McCoy or any other Longhorn against North Texas. And the thing is, Texas plays Sam Houston State later in September.
3. West Virginia: Saturday's game at Marshall will be a real test of staying hungry and humble. How do you not get cocky after beating a cross-state rival?
4. Auburn: I moved the Tigers up because I don't see a lot of weaknesses. The defense is rounding into shape, and the Tigers' toughest games are at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
5. Florida State: No one else has them ranked this high, but I'm convinced that the offense will hold up, and the defense will hold up others.
6. USC: The Trojans have improved more over the summer than any team in the nation. John David Booty is healthy. Chauncey Washington is back in school. Comeback team of the year!
7. California: The Bears have the toughest opener of any team in the Power 16. Tennessee has a good defense and a great stadium in which to play.
8. Notre Dame: All hail Brady Quinn. His mental acuity will be tested by Georgia Tech's pressure defense.
9. Iowa: You couldn't pick Albert Young out of a Facebook. But if you lose track of him, look among the top rushers in Division I-A.
10. Oklahoma: Soothing words are coming forth from Norman about Paul Thompson's return to quarterback. Especially when compared to whomever else the Sooners might have to run the offense.
11. Clemson: This team shouldn't be held responsible for past Tiger teams that have failed to live up to expectations. But we pundits will be skeptical of Clemson until it returns to an ACC race.
12. Georgia: The Bulldogs are too young and inexperienced to win the SEC East. Quarterback Joe Tereshinski III is a leader but not talented enough. I've heard it all. I'm picking the Dawgs.
13. Florida: If I have this straight, Urban Meyer is in Year 2 of his transformation of the Gators, yet this team's strength is defense, led by a defensive coordinator (Charlie Strong) whom Meyer retained from the previous staff. Doesn't that seem a little strange?
14. LSU: If the offensive line gels, this team will be better than No. 13. But road games at Auburn, Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas? Ouch.
15. Oregon: The Ducks have been consistently good for more than a decade. The question is when they will make the next step.
16. Nebraska: Yeah, I'm in. I think the Huskers are back, and that they will cruise to the Big 12 North championship. Unless quarterback Zac Taylor gets hurt. Then I'm out.
No. 2 Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech
Saturday, 8 ET, ABC
Despite howls of protests from subway alumni around the country, the BCS is going to make Notre Dame play all of its games before sending the crystal football to South Bend. The BCS is funny that way.
We tease because we love. No matter how you feel about the Fighting Irish, you feel something. No one is neutral about Notre Dame when the Irish are highly ranked. The offense is experienced and rich in talent. The defense is not. The defense has listened to people rag on it for eight months, or ever since Ohio State gained 617 total yards and punted only once in the 34-20 victory in the Fiesta Bowl.
So here's the deal: the defense will rise above expectations, which are nearly as high as sideline paint. But what will the offense do? There's a reason that Georgia Tech defeated No. 14 Auburn and No. 3 Miami last season. Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is a talented coach who does nothing fancy but teach his players how to get to the right place before the offensive player arrives. Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija are worth setting the TiVo any Saturday. To see them after a hiatus of eight months and against a talented, quick defense? Sign me up.
Northwestern at Miami (Ohio)
Thursday, 7:30 ET, ESPNU
Bring your box of Kleenex. You'll need it. This game Thursday night would have been heartwarming before what happened at the end of June. Wildcat coach Randy Walker would have been returning to his alma mater for the first time since he left as head coach after the 1998 season to go to Northwestern. With Walker's premature death on June 29 at age 52, heartwarming turned into poignant.
The game will be a celebration of a man whose gifts for coaching and teaching got lost amid the public's (and, certainly, the media's) obsession with wins and losses. Both schools have a void that won't be filled. Both teams will wear the same commemorative sticker on their helmets, with purple and red to denote the team colors of Walker's two schools.
Northwestern returns 18 starters from the Sun Bowl team, but lost its leaders: quarterback Brett Basanez, linebacker Tim McGarigle (both of them former All-Big Ten players), offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar (to Cal), offensive line coach James Patton (to Oklahoma) and, of course, Walker.
Miami has more to rebuild, returning only 10 starters from Shane Montgomery's first RedHawk team, which overcame a 2-3 start to finish 7-4. Miami has won five straight games from Northwestern dating to 1963, including a 30-28 victory in 1995, when Walker's Miami team beat the team that Gary Barnett took to Pasadena.
The schools have never played at Yager Stadium. That, too, is part of Walker's legacy. It's a shame he won't be on the sideline.
No. 9 California at No. 23 Tennessee
Saturday, 5:30 ET, ESPN
California coach Jeff Tedford had trouble deciding whether to start Nate Longshore or Joe Ayoob at quarterback and almost surely will play both. Tennessee knows who its starter is. Erik Ainge has started 11 games over the last two years. But the question marks about offensive play in this game all point toward the Volunteers.
In case you've forgotten -- and Tennessee fans have spent nine months trying to do just that -- the Vols went 5-6 last season because they couldn't move the ball. They lost three games in which the defense allowed 16 points or fewer, including the 6-3 loss at Alabama.
Out went offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, receivers coach Pat Washington and offensive line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens. In came David Cutcliffe, a close friend of Fulmer renowned for his ability to teach quarterbacks.
The question, of course, is whether Cutcliffe can get through to Ainge the way he got through to Peyton Manning at Tennessee and Eli Manning at Ole Miss, where Cutcliffe spent six seasons (1999-2004) as head coach. Ainge has started 11 games in two seasons but never adjusted to being yo-yoed in and out of the lineup last season by Fulmer. He held the ball too long, looking to make the perfect play.
Cutcliffe has had one spring and one August to work with Ainge. The results will be revealed Saturday night. How much progress they made together will determine whether Tennessee upsets (yes, that's right) Cal, or whether 2005 can be put to bed once and for all.